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Black Theatre Day is a significant day in American and African American history. #BlackTheatreDay celebrates Black Theatre.

#BlackTheatreDay celebrates Black Theatre

Black Theatre Day is a significant day in American history. It marks the anniversary of the first opening night for the African Grove Theatre in 1821. Before our ancestors were freely-born citizens they hungered for a safe space to express themselves. The African Grove was a place where they could perform and develop their stories freely. It was a place where they could create unfiltered, unedited, and resolutely. Every September 17th affords us the opportunity to pause and acknowledge the first known Black-led and centered theatre institution in the United States. This day celebrates the audacity of Black creatives to believe in the importance of telling Black stories, uplifting the experiences of Black people, and inspiring the next generation to climb even higher.

Background

On September 17, 1821, America’s first resident Black Theatre Company, the African Grove Theatre, invited audiences to attend their inaugural opening night performance. Established in a theatre on Mercer Street in June of 1821, the theater was founded by a free West Indian man named Mr. William Brown. He served as the company manager along with James Hewlett, their lead actor.

Initially, Brown bought a house at 38 Thompson Street in Manhattan in 1816. He began presenting entertainment in the backyard as a summer tea garden called the African Grove. Brown used the space to present a program of classical plays, famous modern works, ballet, music, and opera. Performances were attended by freed and enslaved African people and middle-class whites.

Achievements and Obstacles

Brown also wrote several original plays for them to perform. His most notable work, The Drama of King Shotaway (1823), was based on the life of Black Caribbean leader Joseph Chatoyer (whom Brown called Shotaway in the play) and his revolt against British rule. It is thought that Brown may have had first-hand experience of the Carib Wars when he worked as a ship’s steward at the time of the Atlantic slave trade.

The African Grove Theater launched the career of Ira Aldridge, a Black actor who toured Europe as one of the great Shakespearean tragedians of his time. The company was constantly plagued with harassment. Mobs of white hoodlums, the New York City police, and complaints from their white neighbors disrupted many of the theatre’s shows. Politically motivated reviews written by Mordecai Manuel Noah, a playwright and critic, ridiculed the idea of any actors “of color.” Eventually, the nearby Park Theatre, fearing competition, and the city sheriff forced the African Grove Theatre to close. In defiance, Brown continued performing outdoors illegally. The last recorded performance was in January 1824.

September 17th has been adopted as an annual opportunity to celebrate Black Theatre. Building fun and informative public activities creates greater awareness of Black Theatres nationwide. Also, it amplifies the work and encourages contributions of funds and time to Black theatres.

About Black Theatre Day

Black Theatre Day is an annual, international “Day of Service and Solidarity” where all are encouraged to support and engage with Black theatres. Black Theatre Day, is a collective effort introduced and anchored by The International Black Theatre Summit, which is led by Dr. Monica White Ndounou, Associate Professor of Theater at Dartmouth College and founding Executive Director of The CRAFT Institute, with additional support from WACO Theatre Center, Project1Voice, and Plowshares Theatre Company with regional planning committees that include Support Black Theatre, African American Shakespeare Company, Birmingham Black Theatre Collective, the Hansberry Project, the Black Theatre Network, and St. Louis Black Rep. Our cohorts and allies throughout the Black Theatre field includes numerous participating organizations and supporters over the past two years.

Celebrating Black Theatre Day in Detroit

Detroit joins the movement this year with a series of activities sponsored by Plowshares Theatre Company with support from the Black Theatre Network. Save the dates of Sept. 16 & 17, 2023, and plan to participate in Celebrating Black Theatre Day. Also, share this information with your friends and family. Click the link here to find out more about our Celebrating Black Theatre Day programming.

We look forward to celebrating 202 years of powerful Black storytelling with you!

#BlackTheatreDay celebrates Black Theatre.

African Grove Theatre


African Grove Theatre playbill

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